Monday, September 24, 2012

Special Guest Author: Pamela Sargent

This week it is our great pleasure to welcome award winning author Pamela Sargent as a guest on Heroines of Fantasy.

Pamela Sargent has won the Nebula and Locus Awards and is the author of the novels Cloned Lives, The Sudden Star, Watchstar, The Golden Space, The Alien Upstairs, Eye of the Comet, Homesmind, Alien Child, The Shore of Women, Venus of Dreams, Venus of Shadows, Child of Venus, and Climb the Wind. Ruler of the Sky, her 1993 historical novel about Genghis Khan, was a bestseller in Germany and in Spain, where she was invited to speak at the Institute of American Studies, the University of Barcelona, and the Complutense University of Madrid. She also edited the Women of Wonder anthologies, the first collections of science fiction by women, published in the 1970s by Vintage/Random House and in updated editions during the 1990s by Harcourt Brace. A short story, “The Shrine,” was produced for the syndicated TV anthology series Tales from the Darkside.

Tor Books reissued her 1983 young adult novel Earthseed, selected as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and a sequel, Farseed, in early 2007.  Farseed was chosen by the New York Public Library for their 2008 Books for the Teen Age list of best books for young adults. A third novel, Seedship, was published in 2010. Earthseed has been optioned by Paramount Pictures, with Melissa Rosenberg, scriptwriter for all five “Twilight” films, set to write and produce through her Tall Girls Productions. In 2012, Sargent was honored with the Pilgrim Award, given for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship, by the Science Fiction Research Association.

Heroines of Fantasy: Thank you, Pamela, for joining us today!  What sparked your early interest in science fiction?
Pamela Sargent: As a child, I wasn’t what you would call a sophisticated reader – what child is? – and pretty much read anything I could get my hands on. The first science fiction novel I recall reading was Man of Many Minds by E. Everett Evans, which I got by mistake with some other paperbacks. This was when I was about eleven, and this novel was a revelation. People going to other planets, aliens, mental telepathy – I had this vague notion that Evans had come up with these ideas all by himself. Eventually I discovered that there was a whole body of work devoted to these kinds of ideas, but I still remember how strikingly original Man of Many Minds seemed to me at the time.
I was also a fan of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone on TV. What I appreciated most about the TZ episodes was the way they used science fiction and fantasy elements to offer a different perspective on our own world and its dilemmas – and maybe it was a more honest perspective, one that could reveal many of the hidden, unspoken assumptions we usually take for granted.

But the book that really turned me into a science fiction reader was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, partly because of its sheer bravado brilliance and partly because of the circumstances under which I discovered it. I was messed up during my teens, have spent much of my life wrestling with manic-depression since then, or bipolar disorder as they call it these days, and spent some months in my early teens in one of those facilities sometimes referred to as a “nuthouse” or a “hat factory” with other troubled young people. During the first couple of days I was there, frightened and disoriented, I found an old beat-up paperback of The Stars My Destination, read it, and clung to it like a lifeline or a talisman. I imagined myself, like the novel’s antihero Gully Foyle, “jaunting” out of that place; I’d try to conjure up a future self who would be looking back at that time, who would finally have escaped. I suppose I identified with Gully Foyle. As I said, I wasn’t a very sophisticated reader. 
I went on to discover the works of Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells at the local library. By then I was looking for some rationality and intellectual thought in my fiction, another escape from my troubled emotions. The private girls’ school I attended, which fortunately took a chance on admitting me and also gave me a scholarship, required every student to research and write a junior and senior paper on a subject to be approved by our English teacher. She allowed me to write my junior paper on the science fiction of H. G. Wells – and even gave me an A.
HoF: Have the reasons you write science fiction changed over the years?  If so, how?
PS: That’s a good question, and it has me thinking about what actually got me writing science fiction in the first place. The first stories I wrote before attempting sf were slice-of-life stories, imitations of writers I admired, or ludicrous attempts at historical fiction – I say ludicrous because from what I remember, I committed every offense possible, including stuffing the stories with anachronisms and sentimentality and passages of purple prose. Most of my early stuff was really bad, but occasionally I would produce something that, at least to my English teachers, showed promise. That usually happened whenever a story took hold of me and demanded that I write it; that’s how it would feel to me anyway.

Writers are always being told to write what they know. For me, science fiction offered a way of doing that while also giving me some distance from the material. Having to work only with what I knew struck me as a recipe for writing something claustrophobic and self-indulgent. As it turns out, you almost can’t help writing out of what you’ve known and experienced anyway, but what anyone knows goes beyond – or should go beyond – personal experience.
It also helped that some of my favorite reading as a kid was historical fiction, which has much in common with science fiction. Both the historical novelist and the science fiction writer have to write about societies unlike their own; both require a fair amount of research. They also have to write convincingly about times and places completely removed from the experience of their readers.
It was my good luck that I also began writing at just the time more women were gaining notice as science fiction writers. They’d found the perfect literary form for posing questions about assumptions often taken for granted, to explore how things might be different. Editing the Women of Wonder anthologies was as educational and inspiring an experience for me as it was for anyone reading those anthologies. 
And now we’re living in Philip K. Dick’s world, as I often say. Or as Eleanor Arnason put it in a speech she gave at a Wiscon some years back: “We are living in an age of revolution and in a science fiction disaster novel. No, we are living in several science fiction disaster novels at once. The stakes are huge. Human civilization may be at risk. The solutions are going to require science and technology, as well as political and social struggle.” I don’t know how anyone can write convincingly about the present without bringing a science-fictional perspective to the work.
HoF: Tell us a little about Earthseed and its companion novels, Farseed and Seed Seeker.
PS: To begin, I’ll give you my usual answer, which is that Earthseed was inspired by Brian Aldiss’s Starship, Robert A. Heinlein’s Universe, and Muriel Spark’s The Primer of Miss Jean Brodie. Of course that doesn’t tell you a whole lot if you haven’t read Earthseed, or tell you anything at all about Farseed and Seed Seeker.

I began Earthseed with the intention of writing a novel about a long-term space voyage, with the characters living inside an interstellar vessel that is the only home they have ever known. In Earthseed, that vessel – Ship – is a hollowed-out asteroid controlled by an artificial intelligence with the mission of seeding habitable planets, and the main characters are all kids in their middle teens. I’m not giving anything away if I mention that Ship is as important a character as any of the human beings in the story and that this AI is in its own way also an adolescent. Ship is also the only parent or mentor that Zoheret, the central character, and her companions have had, as they’ve all been gestated from stored genetic material and born and raised inside Ship. Eventually Ship has to allow these kids to establish their own community apart from its guidance, because they have to be prepared for when they reach a habitable planet, settle it, and must survive on their own without Ship’s help. Some have compared Earthseed to Lord of the Flies, although I wasn’t thinking of William Golding’s novel when I wrote it.
Farseed is about the conflicts among the children of the characters in Earthseed after they’ve settled their new home and Seed Seeker is set about a century after events in Farseed, with the people of two very different cultures hoping for and yet fearing that Ship might return. Among the problems all these people face are adapting to an environment that, however Earthlike, is altering them biologically, how much to depend on a technology they lack the knowledge to develop further, and resolving the distrust and hostility that has grown between those who cling to their identity as “true humanity” and those who have become more a part of their settled world.
Writing Farseed and Seed Seeker presented the challenge of showing what some of the characters in Earthseed become as adults. I remember what it was like in my teens, when I would swear to myself that I would never turn into the kind of conventional, boring person others expected me to be, that I would never give up my youthful ambitions, however fanciful, that I wouldn’t just sink into middle age and turn into just the kind of horse’s ass I’d always hated as a child. You might recall that line at the end of the first Back to the Future movie, where Michael J. Fox’s character asks Doc Brown, who has just returned from the future in his souped-up DeLorean, what happens to him and his girlfriend: “Do we become assholes or something?” Most of us end up making compromises later or abandon our youthful idealism, but I wanted my characters, in their very different and sometimes tragic or even destructive ways, to be consistent with their earlier selves. That’s of course a concern with any novel or series that presents its characters over a long period of time, but I might have been a bit more conscious of it while writing Earthseed since it was to be published as a young adult novel.
HoF: You have published prolifically over the years, including several anthologies featuring the contributions of women to science fiction.  In what ways do you think women authors have changed science fiction? 

PS: The easiest way for me to answer that question is to say: Go get my Women of Wonder anthologies, either the three published by Vintage in the 1970s or the rebooted two-volume set Harcourt Brace brought out in the 1990s, where I deal with that question at length. But I’ll come at this question from another angle. 

Greg Benford has often said that genres are also like immense discussions that develop and trade and ring variations on ideas. He claims that science fiction is more like a jazz band doing riffs as opposed to so-called serious fiction, which he compared to a solo performance of an accepted “classic,” or something that stands alone. Now if that’s the case, you’re obviously going to have much more interesting riffs with women developing and ringing changes on ideas, than having science fiction written mostly by men, which kind of limits the possibilities for new riffs. And if you look at the field now, you see that you can’t get away with simply assuming certain things about, for example, the future of gender roles or that there are immutable unchangeable differences between men and women. Doesn’t mean you can’t write something that makes such assumptions, only that you’ve got to have a good reason for the assumption; you’ve got to make a case, or at least make it plausible. Same goes for having more science fiction by people of color, different nationalities, or members of the LGBT community; it’s bound to make the conversation much more interesting and much richer.
HoF: What challenges remain for women in science fiction, both as authors and as characters?
PS: The same ones that remain for all of us who write sf, and I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk only about science fiction here, as what we have now are a number of subgenres – high fantasy, urban fantasy, vampire stories, supernatural fiction, horror fiction, with science fiction still hanging around and keeping company with all of them. And a lot of what’s called science fiction is actually, in my opinion, a kind of science fantasy that uses the standard tropes but that isn’t all that plausible as realistic extrapolation. But whatever you write, you have to be aware of what that particular story or novel demands and then meet those demands. Different stories demand different things, and some will inherently have wider appeal than others, and all a writer can do is make whatever she writes the best kind of story or novel of its kind that she is capable of writing.
You can visit Pamela Sargent and learn more about the novel Earthseed on Facebook at


Monday, September 17, 2012

Location, location, location...'s everything. Think about it. The Cinderella story dates back to 850 AD (the first written version being the Chinese version, Yeh-Shen.) Move it from culture to culture and it changes accordingly. Only the core stays the same: A youngster bereft of a mother figure, an ineffectual father, a festival, an attraction to someone of higher social status,a lost item and the end success of finding it.

Culture, location--they are what change the details of the story. In Korea, Cinderella is Pear Blossom, named for the tree planted on the day she was born. In this one, stepmother sends her out to the rice paddies and tasks her with weeding the whole thing in an afternoon with nothing but wilted turnips to sustain her. Black Ox comes to the rescue, munching away at the weeds as fast as the wind ruffling through the rice. No prince, but a magistrate plucks her out of her sorry circumstances, their marriage making her a noblewoman.

In Ireland, Cinderella is a boy named Becan, and the glass slipper is an old boot. When the stepmother and sisters move in, they banish him to the fields, not the kitchen. There are no dresses and magical coaches, but a dragon to slay and a princess to rescue with the help of a magical bull. Before the princess can thank him, Becan runs off, leaving behind that old boot I mentioned. Can you guess how it ends?

The locations we choose as writers dictate the details of our stories. Whether we use the European-based, medieval setting we all know and love, or something more exotic, a reader is going to expect the culture to ring true. I thought about this because of Mark's post on taverns last week; taverns and pubs are as universal as Cinderella, but they vary by culture. They look different, sound different, smell different. The thing they have in common is alcohol...and, of course, the drunken songs. 

When I needed a "tavern" in Finder, I couldn't call it that. I couldn't make it look like the Prancing Pony. My world has a Middle Eastern, desert setting. I called it a doovah, borrowing very loosely from an old Arabic word. I gave it one open wall whether the others were cloth, hide, or stucco/stone. The characters didn't drink whiskey; they drank sambi (again, borrowing from an old Arabic word.) I did, however, let them drink beer and wine. They are as universal as Cinderella.

Creating worlds comes with all the god-like glory implied; it also comes with responsibility. If borrowing from Italy, keep the culture Italian. Use lots of terracotta and stone buildings and olive trees. Put a pagoda in your village square, or a stone circle in your cornfield, and you're not only leaping out of your setting, you're blending cultures in ways that will make savvy readers put your book in the freezer, and the less savvy ones wonder why the book suddenly doesn't seem as good as it did before.

Blending cultures, languages, even physical characteristics speaks of conquest, an efficient and successful method of transportation over vast distances, migration. I play with this sort of thing in A Time Never Lived, using this blending as a way of showing the clash of cultures. If you do have a cornfield in an Italian setting, or a pagoda in your village square, you'd better have a reason, and you'd better know that reason, because someone will call you on it.

Do we have to borrow to create fantasy worlds? In my opinion, yes, and in doing so, we have to be diligent about being consistent about it. Trying to create something that doesn't touch on a culture in our own world doesn't seem possible. I am open to being shown I'm wrong! I never pass up the opportunity to learn something new.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Tavern: Just a trope or something more?


Hello world! As the banner on the site will tell you, the wonderful ladies of Heroines of Fantasy have decided to add a male voice to the blog.  I am humbled by the generosity of my sister authors from Hadley Rille Books.  I hope I can add one or two bits and pieces to this experience.  Thanks in advance for all who visit this site.  All of us here on HoF are dedicated to the idea of ‘story’, and the MOST important element in that equation is the READER.  Thanks for coming!

When I considered what I might do for my first post, I was neck-deep in edits for novel number two, and I realized I had a number of important scenes taking place in taverns and inns. I don’t feel too uneasy about that because two of my main characters are poets forced to make their way as entertainers of sorts. I see a role for the ale-house-wine-shop-village watering hole in my stories, but I am still forced to confront the questionable use of what many consider an over-used scenario.

In other words, what is the deal with all the inns and taverns in fantasy?

I have read quite a few blog posts and critical articles decrying the “trope”: those elements that get so overused that they become hackneyed and stale to the point of being crutches for bad writers to cling to when they need help with a story.  Others have exhaustingly catalogued these tropes (just word itself suggests tired and misdirected), so I won’t add any more invective to the pile. I get it. Certain images and situations seem to get overused in fantasy more than in other genres.  Why that happens is perhaps a topic for another entry, and I am sure there are some who visit this blog who can ably direct you to those more expansive examinations. The tavern or inn has a place at the head of that list, but I wonder if we haven’t been a bit harsh and dismissive.

Today I want to talk about taverns or inns and make an apology of sorts for their frequent use in fantasy novels.  I come by my affliction by inclination because I’ve been addicted to Middle Earth and all its incarnations since I first heard about Bilbo’s mad dash down the hill to meet the dwarves at the Green Dragon in Bywater.  In fact, Tolkien probably did more to cement the idea of the tavern/inn as a staple of fantasy than anyone else.  We could blame him for all the copy-cat crutch use since, or we could take another look at the role taverns have played and temper our judgement.

The simple truth is we love our taverns. We frequent them. We take ownership of them (rugby gangs, anyone?). We leave bits and pieces of ourselves in them (my initials are still legible on a brick in the inner wall of the Tav in Ellensburg, Washington). We name our chat rooms after them! I know this because I was the one back in the early days of who won the contest to name the chatroom. “Barliman’s” seemed appropriate. I wish I had figured out how to use the snazzy email they gave as the prize. I was too much a hobbit to figure out how to incorporate into my non-techie email universe.  The tavern is part of our cultural identity, so it stands to reason that it should enter our fiction as well. And it is when we ill-use the tavern in our fiction that we create the trope argument so pervasive in the genre criticism. They can’t just be set pieces placed to allow a writer to move characters around and create chaos and conflict. They work best when they serve their deeper purpose in the world the writer creates.

 In Tolkien’s world, the tavern stood for civility in a wild world, a gathering place for locals and travelers to interact and share news of the road. They helped knit Tolkien’s pre-industrial, not-everyone-has-a-palantir environment together. For the professor, the inn helped define part of the human experience in middle earth. Anyone ever come across a Dwarfish tavern? An Elvish waystation? Nope. Taverns show up in Middle Earth in places where Men and their near cousins the Hobbits settled. Man built the roads in Middle Earth. Everybody else built really interesting things, kingdoms and enclaves and refuges and such, but Man is the one who knit all the various places together by a system of roads, villages and towns.  There are wonderful hints of how widespread the Numenorean culture was throughout The Lord of the Rings.  In fact, some of the earliest writings Tolkien put together were the tales and poems that take pace in the ‘cottage of lost play’…nice euphemism for a tavern from my so-very-temporary-human perspective. Let’s face it, Tolkien liked his pipes and his pints. The Inklings were vital to his creative genius, so it should come as no surprise that taverns in all their convivial glory appear in his writing where it dealt with the world of Man/Hobbits. 

For JRRT, the tavern was a sign of elevated culture. Where are the references to ale-houses in Rohan? Laketown? I can’t find any (although Tolkien does give hints to trade—wine barrels down the river, etc, that is suggestive). All the references seem to point to the Shire, Bree, Tharbad, and Minas Tirith. Settled places. Places where people collected for pints and news. Places where trade occurs.

Do we give the professor a pass on his use of the trope? I think we should because he avoids the kinds of mistakes that so many others make. I point to several instances where his use of the tavern serves an important moment in LOTR.  Sam’s early interaction at the Green Dragon prefigures the reality of the Ents and also illustrates his romantic, sensitive nature that will bear such wonderful fruit later on in the story. The other, of course, is how he uses The Prancing Pony at Bree.  In his letters and other writings, he tells us the story stalled at Bree. Maybe intuitively he knew he was at a contrived place. What leads me to give him the pass here is how well he developed Barliman and his inn as an integral plot element of the story. In fact, nearly everything that happens later in the tale hinges on the way things unfold at The Prancing Pony.

I’m not talking about Frodo and the ring or Aragorn in the shadows or Nazgul blades in the night.

I’m talking about an undelivered letter. Butterbur’s establishment was so much more than a place for events to happen. Tolkien lovingly establishes its local and regional importance. Barliman was the unofficial postmaster for the district, and if he had managed to get that note to Frodo in time, the Fellowship would have been a far different and less exciting story.

And this is where I feel the most strongly about how we use our ‘places’ in our stories.  Great events transpire in Tolkien’s Bree: violence, terror, character, intrigue. These sorts of things appear over and over again in other novels incorporating the tavern, and we get the accusations of ‘tropeness’ when THAT’S ALL THAT HAPPENS.

Bree is actually where the hobbits' growth begins in earnest. It is the place at the end of the novel where we, and they, see the results of that growth. It knits together the tale like it knits together the culture within which Tolkien makes it exist.  It is not just a plot device designed to introduce Strider. It is a reminder of what happens when communication goes awry.

Frankly, I like taverns. I like using them in my own writing because the world my characters inhabit need them for poetry duels, assignations and rest.

I am sure my defense of the tavern/inn has holes. I’d like to read what all of you think about taverns and various other ‘places’ that seem to pop up time and time again in fantasy.

Mark Nelson




Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy Birthday, Heroines of Fantasy!

This month we are celebrating one year of being on line.  It's been an exciting twelve months for us, with great posts, interesting debates and a wonderful contributions by many guest authors.  Thank you so much to everyone who has participated by visiting our site, writing guest posts, and joining in the conversation through your comments and insights.

A new year always brings changes.  One of the changes we are most excited about is the addition of a fourth regular contributing author, Mark Nelson.  Mark's debut novel, Poets of Pevana, was released this year by Hadley Rille Books.  The book is an engaging journey into a complex world where poets -- and poetry -- lead the way in the resistance against a brutal and insidiously repressive regime.  We are all very excited to welcome Mark to Heroines of Fantasy.  Look for his first regular post, and a chance to win a free signed copy of his novel, later this month. 

Speaking of Hadley Rille Books, our beloved small press has decided to celebrate HoF's birthday with a $0.99 sale on all electronic editions (Kindle and Nook) of our novels.  Check out the right-hand bar for purchase links to each title.  This sale is for a limited time only, so take advantage of it now.

Those are my birthday announcements.  Now on to my post...

For the coming 12-month cycle, we've set up a calendar of topics by month.  Not everyone will be posting all the time on the monthly topic, but you will start seeing some continuity within months, and hopefully more variety between months, in terms of what we decide to write about.

September's theme comes courtesy of Terri-Lynne DeFino, who has asked that this month we all write about place in fantasy, and how certain areas of the world inspired the landscapes in which we have set our stories.

Moisehén -- the kingdom in which Eolyn lives -- is actually a strange amalgamation of places.  Most people who read the novel would place it, correctly, in medieval Europe. 
The seeds of Moisehén were Germanic, planted by trips I made to visit family in Frankfurt, Bavaria, and I think most importantly, the regions of North Rhine-Westphalia and Hessen.  I have both maternal and paternal roots in Germany, and so from a very young age was enamored of this land of medieval castles and rolling hills, fertile fields and dense forests. 
Castles like this one in Marburg, Germany, provided fertile
ground for my childhood imagination.
By the time I got around to writing Eolyn however, I had been to a few more places.   Most importantly, I'd spent about ten years living and working in Costa Rica, getting to know its people and its history. 

The colonial era of Central America, in particular, held a special fascination for me.  Costa Rica developed in a way that was very distinct from other provinces.  The elite Spaniards that colonized the Central Valley were wealthy in land, but had very little capital.  This set up a very different social dynamic compared to what happened in other colonial provinces such as Nicaragua and Guatemala. 

When I began to shape the different provinces of Moisehén, I modeled the province of Moehn -- where Eolyn is from -- after the Central Valley of Costa Rica, as I imagined it during the colonial era.  Both Moehn and the Central Valley are higher in elevation compared to the rest of the country. They are surrounded by mountains with access through a limited number of passes.  They both have very fertile land fed by copious rainfall and volcanic ash. 

Of course, there are many important differences between the Central Valley and Moehn.  One of these is that the Central Valley eventually became the center of power in Costa Rica.  Moehn is and will always be a marginal province with limited power in the grand scheme of things. 

One of the gateways to the oak-dominated
forests of Talamanca in Costa Rica.
The forest that inspired the South Woods, where Eolyn grows up, was not a European forest but a tropical one.  The higher elevations of Talamanca, the mountain range that runs from Costa Rica to Panama, are cloaked in a magnificent forest dominated by oak trees and inhabited by many marvelous creatures, including -- according to local legend -- the magical and elusive duendes.  In many ways, Talamanca took the seeds planted by my childhood trips to Germany and gave them life, allowing me to weave the many threads of inspiration into the single story that would become Eolyn. 

I could go on about this for a while -- and have in other places and other posts -- but I think I will leave my reflections on the landscape of Moisehén at that for now. 

I would like to finish by mentioning that while Moisehén has provided an important context for my stories, it is not the only landscape in which I write.  It just happens to be the only landscape in which I have crafted a novel.  But my short stories have taken me other places.  Turning Point, for example, is set in the contemporary world of High Talamanca.  When Sally Met Ben could be interpreted as a Midwest 1970s suburban setting.  Creatures of Light, which I will begin weaving into a full-length novel in the not-so-distant future, is set in a Mediterranean-like world of the 17th/18th century. 

This is one of the great things about writing and reading fantasy -- the possibilities of landscape are endless, especially if you give yourself the freedom to combine more than one period and location into a single world. 

 ~ posted by Karin Rita Gastreich